an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Roof Goof? Art Institute of Chicago Closes Top Floor of Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing

Renzo Piano's unmagical "Flying Carpet" atop Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Renzo Piano’s less-than-magical “Flying Carpet” atop Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

[More on this, here.]

My Friday post on the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano-designed addition (opening Nov. 27) turned out to be somewhat prescient—not about the Fort Worth museum’s new pavilion (which is not yet reviewable, because it’s not yet completely finished), but about the Art Institute of Chicago.

In reporting that the top of the Kimbell’s Piano Pavilion is being touted as one of Piano’s “most elaborately engineered roof systems,” I noted that the same architect’s complicated apparatus atop the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago seemed disappointing when I attended the wing’s May 2009 opening for my review in the Wall Street Journal.

Now it appears that something is going to be done about Chicago’s roof goof: As mentioned on its Collections Updates webpage, the Chicago museum’s galleries of European modern art, located on the top floor of the Modern Wing, have been closed for renovation, to reopen next April.

Why is the four-year-old wing already in need of a partial makeover? A Chicago Sun-Times report on Friday by Madeline Nusser (who spoke by phone to the museum’s spokesperson, Erin Hogan) revealed that among the reasons is the need to “solv[e] issues with light-harvesting and motion-sensor systems.”

The light had seemed to me insufficiently “harvested” during my opening-day visit. Piano’s vaunted “flying carpet”—the elaborate, expensive rooftop contraption that, with the help of sensors, was supposed to adjust “to minute fluctuations in daylight”—had instead caused paintings to suffer what I described on CultureGrrl as “death-by-inadequate-illumination.”

That deficiency was brought home to me (literally) when Chicago’s great Matisse masterpiece, “Bathers by a River,” traveled to New York for the Museum of Modern Art’s showing of Matisse: Radical Invention (organized jointly by the two museums). As I wrote here, that painting came alive for me at at MoMA in a way that it didn’t in Chicago, because of the superior (artificial) lighting in New York.

At MoMA’s July 2010 press preview, I had asked Douglas Druick (then the chairman of two curatorial departments at the Art Institute and now that museum’s director) what he thought about the functionality (or lack thereof) of Piano’s skylights. He told me this:

We have been playing with the balance between natural light and artificial light….What is the optimal light at different times of year? In winter, the light is grayer than in the summer….The light level on the meters that we use to read light, may measure the same [at different times of year], but it doesn’t feel the same. So it’s playing with that: It’s playing with the experience, not with the absolute light level. Sometimes we change the program settings. We change the total levels.

It’s an experiment: What works in August doesn’t work in January. It’s figuring out how much change to you want over a year. We’re getting closer and closer [emphasis added] to what will be the status quo in the future.

“Closer,” it seems, may not have been close enough.

Here’s a photograph of the of the underside of the “flying carpet” that I took at the May 2009 press preview for the Modern Wing on an overcast day when the spotlights provided most of the illumination:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The following day (when the general public was admitted) was radiantly sunny. Most of the lights had been turned off and the scrims filtered the sunlight so heavily that the illumination seemed too weak.

None of this is to say that Piano’s roof for the concrete, wood and glass Kimbell addition won’t be a marvel of brilliantly effective technology and engineering. Here’s how it’s described in the Kimbell’s new Visitors Guide:

The roof includes a layer of high-efficiency fritted glass supporting mechanical aluminum louvers with built-in photovoltaic cells. The ceiling glows as sunlight filters through the glass roof down to the soft, silk-like scrims. Energy-efficient lighting with incorporated LED technology enhances the natural light provided by the roof.

Here’s what it looks like, from the outside:

Roof for the Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum Screenshot from the museum's video

The roof of the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion
Screenshot from KERA’s preview video

During the Art Institute’s renovation, Chicago’s loss will the Fort Worth’s gain: The Kimbell will present a loan show, The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago, from Oct. 6 to Feb. 16.

an ArtsJournal blog